For the past three days my ongoing adventures in biography have immersed me in Aboriginal culture and I attended:
- Indigenous Cultural Awareness course
- Indigenous Language Intensive
- Guided tour of the Mt William stone axe quarry
Want to know what I learned?I’m happy to tell you, but first some context.
In the course of my research I’ve become more and more interested in the interactions between the Macarthur family and the Aboriginal people whose lands the family colonised. The various relationships are often only hinted at but seem to have been complex and naunced. The Macarthurs’ interactions with Aborigines were at once friendly and patronising, welcoming and dispossessing. An Eora boy lived with the family for a time, as did a Tahitian teenager. Aboriginal women brought their babies to show Elizabeth and a warrior ritually and fatally speared insisted on being buried within sight of the Macarthur farmhouse. These relationships are explored in some depth and the biography includes new information and analysis.
However my sources are necessarily drawn from the writings of literate white people and the gaps in their knowledge – and therefore mine – are often obvious. So I’ve been trying to learn more. Books, however interesting, could only take me so far. Over the last few days I’ve taken some small steps further.
On day one I attended an Indigenous Cultural Awareness course at the Koori Heritage Trust, at Federation Square in Melbourne (well worth a visit). Lisa at ANZLitlovers has provided a terrific summary of the day. The most powerful message for me was about Aboriginal identity. The participants, about twenty of us, were handed a piece of paper and asked to write it on our responses to the following prompts:
- Community you identify with
- Cultural background
- Something you are proud of about yourself
Completing each prompt was harder than you might think – give it a try! Who is your family, for example? Where does family begin and end? And the facilitator (a charming and thoughtful young Aboriginal man called Tim Rose) politely and respectfully declined to help. It was our own identity we were describing and it was up to us to decide how we would articulate it. After much struggling we handed up our pieces of paper and continued on with the course, learning about languages, stereotypes, massacres, government controls, elders, culture, modern-day challenges and – of course – engaging with respect.
Then Tim stepped up with his hands full of those papers on which we’d each carefully and thoughtfully described our identity. I expected he might choose some at random, to read them out. Instead he slowly ripped them all in half, then in half again, and in half once more. Then he threw them in the air and let them fall on the floor. Then with his foot he shuffled them around some more.
That’s the effect of colonisation on Aboriginal identity.
‘You want to know who you are?’ asked Tim. He wasn’t being fierce. His message was so clear and strong he didn’t need to be. ‘You’d have to get down there,’ he suggested mildly, ‘and see if you can find all the right pieces and put them back together.’ He smiled at us. ‘Good luck with that.’
Bruce is a gifted teacher and it was a privilege to be in his class. He was intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, generous, and kind.
We learnt about his passions – including growing, milling and baking with Indigenous grains – and he listened carefully as each of us read something from a writer we admired. One woman, in a wavering voice, sang us the words from a song about being separated from home. She ended in tears and all of us were deeply moved.
At one stage we moved to the steps in front of the State Library. The grassy space before us held a wide variety of people.
Observe someone, said Bruce, and spend fifteen minutes writing about your observations. Then later, as we each read out our piece (mine is here), he used them to gently teach us about how best to write about unknown others.
The key message of the day, though, was about engagement.
Book learning is crucial but not enough. We must meet, befriend, engage with and seek permission from Aboriginal people if we wish to write about them.
Day three saw my children and I taking a guided tour of the Mt William stone axe quarry.
Only an hour from Melbourne, the quarry site is of national (and indeed global) significance. On a cold and windy morning about two dozen of us were bussed up to the site and welcomed to country by Wurundjeri woman Annette. She then shared with us some of the stories and history associated with the site.
The site is believed to have been worked for some 10,000 years and greenstone axe heads from the quarry were traded along the songlines of the Great Dividing Range, ending up thousands of kilometres away in South Australia and Queensland. According to Wikipedia:
The Mount William Aboriginal stone axe quarry comprises the remains of hundreds of mining pits and the mounds of waste rock where Aboriginal people obtained greenstone (diabase), and manufactured stone blanks for axe heads. Chipped and ground stone axes or hatchets were an essential part of Aboriginal toolkits in southeast Australia, with the Mount William greenstone being one of the most prized and extensively traded materials. The stone was quarried from the source outcrops, and roughly flaked into blanks, then taken away for finer flaking and grinding the edge. There are 268 mining pits, 18 of which are several metres deep, surrounded by at least 34 discrete flaking floors, with mounds of debris up to 20 metres in diameter and some featuring a central outcropping rock used as an anvil.
Unsurprisingly, the granite stone is remarkably hard.
The Wurundjeri who quarried it had to be highly skilled in order to cut and shape the stone blanks – using only stone tools themselves.
The blanks were traded for items like possum-skin blankets and it was up to the recipient of the blank to sharpen it into a blade, and attach a handle.
The result of 10,000 years of continuous effort is a hillside strewn with quarry debris – stone flakes are everywhere underfoot.
The site, not far from the well-known Hanging Rock picnic site, is also dotted with enormous granite outcrops. One of these is said to have been thrown down by Bunjil, the Wurundjeri creator figure. Generously, everyone on the tour was allowed to wander at will and experience the place for ourselves. We could handle the worked stones, and touch Bunjil’s stone for luck.
I’m extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity to visit the site and only amazed that the site is not more well-known, and visited. My guided tour was offered as part of the Lancefield Megafauna Festival.
So. After three consecutive days of Indigenous Immersion?
Well, I’m now pretty clear about how much more I have to learn.
But the key message is respect.
- Respect in the form of personal courtesy.
- Respect in the form of patience.
- Respect in the form of reverence – for culture, and for the land.
Because if I’ve learnt anything from the last three days it’s that respect for Aboriginal people and their culture is crucial if we Australians ever get around to all trying to move forward together.